Watching Paris wake up is a restful experience, first the lights flick into life in remote, random places, then the main streets and venues start to shine, the traffic increases and people start appearing. The sky turns pale and the soft Parisian light filters across the roof tops.
Paris is always a busy time for me but the joy of seeing familiar buildings is like visiting with my favourite aunts.
To me one of nicest places is walking up behind Sacre Coeur to the hilltop, past the stone walls, the pastel houses and the flowering wisteria. The height allows for a wider vista of Paris - just wonderful.
This time there were hardly any tourists in Paris, the endless queues were gone and with it the awful bumping and noise. I took the time to enjoy a good coffee and watch the painters, waiters and tourists do the 'Will I buy, or won't I" dance.
In the afternoon it was whizz around Paris to catch the things first time visitors like to see: Old Opera House, Arc de Truimphe, Eiffel Tower and the Lourve.
A busy time as we negotiate our way on and off Metro stations and change lines. Last stop was Vespers at Notre Dame. The Cantor voice filling the cathedral with song, bringing the place to life.
The medieval heart of this village still beats to the rhyme of pilgrims' feet on the cobblestones. Walking along the narrow, windy lanes we climb to the base of the staircase rising to the portal of the cathedral. With a black stone (volcanic) facade, and a serious face to the world, Le Puy cathedral feels much like a solid fortress, a safe place to hold a tender Pilgrim prayer.
We all clamber up, entering the church with a soft step. Inside, the walls have been lightened with grey wash... stained glass windows and candelairs provide an open, welcoming space. St James himself is a wooden statue across a pillar facing the black Madonna in her colorful robes.
Last year I was here I carried a blue scarf for a lady who was being treated for cancer, this year she is with me, and I took her over to the miracle stone slab. We didn't have much time as the priests and nuns were getting ready for mass, but for 1,000 years people have been coming to this church for hope - and one stood by my side.
Today the weather was wetter than I wanted it to be but there was nothing to be done about that.
Everyone was on time so it was AWAY with a very fond farewell to charming Le Puy. I was a bit distracted and busy sorting out a few client problems so when I finally took a look outside I found to my delight that Mucho ( our driver) had taken us on the secondary roads. These secondary roads pass through small French villages made of stone, past carefully cultivated fields of wildflowers. The pretty French cows were out for the spring grass and we even saw some heavily pregnant sheep. The colours: vibrant green crops, yellow wild daffodils, red roses, wild almond blossoms and red earth - some of it looked like a Van Gogh painting washed in the rain.
As it was Bruce's birthday I put him in charge of the weather and asked if he could do something about the temperature (8 c), the persistent rain, and the mist. By the time we got to St Come, the start of our morning walk, it was up to 14° C, the rain had stopped and mist lifted. First stop was the toilets at the town hall. St Come is made up of mostly stone buildings with full bodied roses climbing its walls.
The town hall and church are protected behind walls, and the houses tumble down to the River Lot. We sorted ourselves into three groups: the advance party (our long distance faster walkers), our middle group (my group which go slower and not so far) and the last group (with Cristina, the cultural guide)... Tail end Charlie appointed... and we were off.
I love this walk as it gently leads us out of the village, across the river, over a small stone bridge and sharp right onto a country road. Cristina's group remained on this country road walking on level terrain beside the swift river to Espalion, our destination.
My group caught up with the advanced group where the path divided and started to ascend up to the ridge line through the young beech forest. Due to the rain, the beginning of the track was muddy!
The track through the forest was a rich fresh green, mossy rocks and broken trucks. As we ascended, the vistas appeared, showcasing a lush agricultural valley across the ridgeline and up the Madonna. A bit muddy on the rocky track down into the Espalion, we reached the Parisian church where we caught up with the advanced group.
Not bad, I thought. The fast walkers were admiring the inside of the church so my lot whipped past and got to the village first. Oh yes!
A break for a rather late lunch and the rain came on with a rush. On the bus and off to Conques. When I was explaining to the team about Conques, I think there were a few puzzled looks, which meant "Why are we going there?" When we arrived and walked in this grey stone medieval village, the reason was obvious. Conques is just beautiful!
Stone buildings line the cobbled street, and the focus of the village is its famous cathedral. I think the cathedral seems too large for such a small place - but there she sits. The village is narrow and flows down the steep slopes surrounded by mature forest. Grey stone, green nature and red climbing roses. On to Cahors. Quiz night to celebrate Bruce's birthday. Sleep.
Today the sun came out in all its glory. After our rather dramatic day with the bus stuck in the mud and needing to be dug out - it’s good to feel that things can only improve. I'm in my hotel room at St Jean Pied de Port watching the sun set over the Pyrenees - beautiful. The hills are outlines in grey and the clouds a soft pink-orange. Tomorrow we will be in Spain. Some of the brave people in our party are getting up at 6am to walk across the pass and rendezvous with us on the other side... here's to hoping all the timing works out!
Today we detoured into Lourdes and visited this very special place. I felt quite emotional to have Jenni there wearing her blue scarf where as last year all I had was her blue scarf and she was home in NZ dealing with cancer. We washed the scarf again and went to light a candle. This is the dynamic power of hope.
Our last walk of the day was between French farms and around behind St Jean Pied de Port. White painted buildings with burnt red window frames and roofs. Up the hill to Pilgrims Gate and we were there! Cobbled streets with narrow shop fronts; a walled town at the foot of the Pyrenees. Pilgrims everywhere.
This morning as we went over the Pass the mist had risen so visibility was more than 10 metres. I was so happy when I saw this as three of my brave adventurers had set out at 6 am to cross the Pyrenees and meet us at Roncesvalles. Our compromise was to ask them to taxi to a high point then St Jean Pied de Port and walk from there. Even so their photos show dense mist and only vague outlines of horses, trees and walkers. So many pilgrims have died on this pass that numerous emergency points have been made to assist those in distress. Happily as we approached Roncesvalles the advanced party had also just arrived.
What joyous faces greeted me! Tick that off the bucket list.
Meanwhile my other team members got themselves ready for the comfortable walk down from Roncesvalles through two villages and across the Spanish countryside. The Basque countryside is full of animals, white buildings trimmed in red or green and fences. When we all finished our walk, it was off on our way to Pamplona. I had a rendezvous with a beer and tapas in the street where the bulls run. To add to the fun I had some of group re-enact the bulls chasing the people... in our case the bulls won.
On our way again with a brief stop at Alto de Pardon to get a grand view of the plains of Spain. Windmills line the ridges, tall white machines whirling constantly, chain upon chain of them. On this ridge of Pardon are corrugated figures of pilgrims marching their way to Santiago.
Down from the ridge we stopped at an ancient church with a hexagonal design, there are very few of these left in the world. Usually this church is closed but as we arrived I noticed the gate was open. We could hear singing but it was so sweet I thought it was a recording. Inside was a German choir testing the acoustics. They were so pleased to see us that they wanted to hold hands around the small interior of the church. If that wasn't special enough they sang us another joyful song. In response I asked my group to sing "Pokarekare Ana" which they did with great gusto and volume... it reduced some of the Germans to tears… a very special moment indeed.
The last few stops of the day include Puente la Reina where I introduced the team to the fabulous small but perfectly formed Templar chapel. Fantastic acoustics which made even my singing sound good. And Irache where the pilgrims have the choice of a free drink of red wine or water. Another happy moment of the day was finding that there was some red wine left for each of us to have a sip.
Wind across my face
Tinkle of the scallop on my pack
Tread, blister, tap of my walking pole
Red poppy, blue cornflower, yellow canola, green barley
Some of our distance walkers set off from Villafranca whilst the rest of us advanced down the road to join the track. The day was sunny and warm with a soft breeze. As we set into our rhythm we stretched along the clay road over 500 metres. In ones and twos we stepped our way along. This part of the Camino was once renown for bandits and the tradition survives today with a dodgy man selling fruit by the roadside.
The track was wide enough that three could walk comfortably. The pine trees lined each side but cast no shadow across the road. I drifted forward and back checking in with folk to make sure they were managing and remembering to drink.
Then on the downward slop to San Juan I took some time for myself and a kilometre or so of mindful walking. What a blessing in our modern busy noisy world to take some time out... just to focus on breathing and walking, feeling the wind on your face, the thump of shoes on the road and that annoying blister reminding you that you have to pay attention. My eyes are delighted by the glimpse of flowers amongst the barley and whose heart would not sing with the yellow slap of colour created by the canola in bloom.
It was a relief to reach the tiny place which is San Juan (one cafe, one church and one place to stay). I left the group to grab a few moments of peace inside the cool church. A simple country church with a few ornaments, a place for candles and rest. A place to pause and reflect.
Then it’s out into the sunlight to join the others at the cafe and wait for the of the last walkers. My merry crew found the beer to their liking and a few empties accumulated on the table tops. The owner came to clean and then to contribute to the empties. I am quite sure that part of the group didn't mind how long the tail-end Charlie took.
The day started with a nice walk around the historic area and collecting the food items we needed for our picnic later on. We were doing so well with time until we hit the bread shop and the lady there was rather reluctant to serve non-Spanish speaking customers. I know my Spanish is limited but ordering a few loaves of bread isn't that hard... some 15 minutes later we managed to escape with our loaves and chocolate biscuits.
On to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a charming village which has been created and grown because of its long association with pilgrims on the Camino. A particularly quirky feature is the chickens in the cathedral - all to do with a rather strange legend about dead boys, roasted chickens and miracles. There is also a fine example of a restored Parador here, where the coffee is great. The search began and successfully completed. One table was filled with the fresh bread, plump tomatoes, rich cheeses, tasty ham and salami, pickles, olives and white asparagus; the other strawberries, oranges, apples and chocolate biscuits. A feast paid for by Richard, the owner of Tour Direct. Mucho the bus driver contributed to our fare with many bottles of wine to say thank you for understanding about the day the bus got stuck in the mud. What could be better, fresher and tastier?
After a log walk there is something wonderful about appearing at the door of a restored Parador. The one in Leon is the most grand I have seen. Towering stone walls with its rich facade. Inside is even better as the restoration includes stuffing the place full of genuine antiques.
My room has parquet floor, marble bathroom and wooden carved features... even better we look out over the formal knot garden. Last evening as I rested my tired and sore feet I watched doves perched on the roofline, soft grey and brown against the terracotta tiles. The popular trees line the garden and the blue sky glimpses through the rustling leaves.
This morning I wandered out into the terrace that encircles the formal cloisters. I like to pay a silent visit to San Marco's chapel when no else is around. The vaulted ceiling rises three floors above the altar and the grey walls hold a presence I find soothing. Thousands of people have flowed this space over the centuries but I am here alone.
Paradors were hospital on the Camino, where the pilgrims could be tended to by caring monks. After the decline of the Camino this Parador was many things including a prison during Franco days. I like its present persona as a luxury hotel where tired pilgrims with cash can rest.
PS There is champagne at breakfast. One of our party was told it would make her 82 year old mother look 60 again.
All journeys must come to a close, and the Camino (or Way of St James) ends at the Cathedral where St James' bones lie.
We started our last part of this journey at Monte de Gozo. On this hill stand two bronze statues of medieval pilgrims gazing at the towers of the cathedral. Both are dressed in simple habits with a rope belt, a staff, hat and sandals. My thought went to their poor feet as my own were rather blistered and sore. The shiny big toe of one indicated that many a pilgrim identified with the sore feet drama and hoped rubbing the bronze digit would help their own. Being more practical in thought I put my faith in good socks and many plasters.
Still, after the necessary photo stop it was time to hit the road/path/way again and walk down the hill and into Santiago. My happy travelers set off with gusto, what is there not to like about going downhill? Walking ahead of us was a large and noisy group of Italians. I am not sure where they came from as many were trotting along in designer boots and carrying handbags - an upmarket pilgrim to be sure! Our faster walkers soon merged with the Italians. I was wondering how I was going to separate the goats from the sheep when an even louder Italian began shouting. It was all rather nerve-racking in these days of sudden alarm but the designer walkers stopped and the antipodeans appeared. Problem solved. We left them in our dust.
The walk into Santiago is not so exciting, it passes through a light industry zone, outlet stores and suburbs. The city has done its best to beautify the way and I am so grateful for the signs but I used my imagination to redraw the scene as a woodland and clay path. Bringing the group back together, we stopped at the place that was the Pilgrim's Gate. This gate is no more, the walls demolished to make room for a road, but it is historic and we were there. Past this point we were in the medieval streets. These twist, stop or split at seemingly random points. The scallop markers in the paving stones are dull or missing. The narrow lanes lined with souvenir shops, cafes and closed doors. We move along and I take the pilgrims to the East door, the historic place pilgrim could enter. Once filled with stores, sellers and trinkets, the place is beginning to fill again with souvenirs vendors, beggars and Chinese tat. Sitting on the wall, a few pilgrims clap us as we enter the plaza... well we did look tired, dusty and we had walked. Sadly this door was now marked as an exit so I walked the group around to the front of the cathedral. It has been many years that this area has been under renovation and the facade continues to be covered in steel and netting. The group was too tired for a trot around to the west door so it was 'On James, and find the hotel!"
When we arrived at the hotel it was to the news that the botafumeiro was hung in the cathedral and due to be in action that night. It’s a huge secret when this enormous incense burner will make its appearance and such a disappointment to miss it. So it was a quick shower, change of clothes and back to the cathedral for evening mass. Sitting in the west aisle means the Incense burner will swing right over our heads. The head priest is very nice but my Spanish is not up to understanding all the bits and pieces of the Catholic service. I know he talks about the spirit of the pilgrimage, the friendship and companionship but much is lost in translation. I amuse myself by looking for the different mason marks on the pillars and imagining the builders labouring so much per day and receiving their payments.
The service comes to a close... but wait a moment, what about the botafumeiro?
There are no hot coals of incense, no men dressed in red capes - just hold it a minute guys. But no, the priests head off and the incense burner hangs quiet and cold.
The next day at Pilgrim Mass, 12 noon, guess what? The botafumeiro goes for a swing and this time I miss it.
One of the main traditions on the way is adding a stone to the hill of pebbles at the foot of the Iron Cross (or Cruz de Ferro). This 30m high cross stands on the pass in Montes de Leon (1504m). I like to start this alpine walk at Foncebadon (1440m). We walk through this high mountain village which looks more in ruins than fit for human habitation. Over the years more and more buildings have been repaired but it still looks a bomb site. The pilgrims rest in the sun, their washing hung every which way. We look fresh and lively, but we haven't slogged our way up the hillside. Past the buildings we find horses and views to the south and then to the north. The path has heather, white broom and small flowers poking through the rocks. The vivid purple of one small flower splashes colour in the more muted world of its sister plants.
The path follows the contour of the land and very walkable in the sun, during winter the snow makes the pass impossible for pilgrims. Today we arrive at Cruz de Ferro just after a large German group. Like the gentle kind people we are, we wait until they take all the pictures they want then suddenly we have the place to ourselves.
Jenni and I climb the mound of pebbles to look for the small heart shaped stone I lay there for her last year. It is incredible to think, last year she was bound to a wheelchair and today she is walking the Camino. I had placed the stone tucked in close to the iron pole but everyday pilgrims leave hundreds of stones here.
Together with Jenni, I sift through a few layers of stones. I know where I left it but there are just so many stones. Is it this one? No. This one? Maybe this one… Then Jenni finds her precious pebble taken from the South Island of NZ, laid here a year ago and now found again. Photo time and then the small symbol of hope is placed back again with a twin pebble. Hope and life existing side by side.
Mandy is one well-travelled person, having visited all 7 continents! Over the years her travels have taken her to the UK, Europe, the USA, Canada, Vanuatu, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Mexico, Russia, China, Burma, Croatia, Slovenia, Vietnam, India, Laos, Cambodia, Argentina and Antarctica plus a few more.
Mandy has always had an adventurous spirit, especially for places more unusual. She particularly enjoys introducing others to these destinations and making it possible for people to realise a life’s dream.